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Literary Translation: A Practical Guide

Literary Translation: A Practical Guide

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Literary Translation: A Practical Guide

4.5/5 (4 évaluations)
366 pages
5 heures
Sep 13, 2001


In this book, both beginning and experienced translators will find pragmatic techniques for dealing with problems of literary translation, whatever the original language. Certain challenges and certain themes recur in translation, whatever the language pair. This guide proposes to help the translator navigate through them. Written in a witty and easy to read style, the book’s hands-on approach will make it accessible to translators of any background. A significant portion of this Practical Guide is devoted to the question of how to go about finding an outlet for one’s translations.

Sep 13, 2001

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Literary Translation - Dr. Clifford E. Landers


Series Editors: Susan Bassnett, University of Warwick, UK and Edwin Gentzler,

University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA

Editor for Translation in the Commercial Environment: Geoffrey Samuelsson-Brown, University of Surrey, UK

Other Books in the Series

Annotated Texts for Translation: French – English

Beverly Adab

Annotated Texts for Translation: English – French

Beverly Adab

Annotated Texts for Translation: English – German

Christina Schäffner with Uwe Wiesemann

‘Behind Inverted Commas’ Translation and Anglo-German Cultural Relations in the Nineteenth Century

Susanne Stark

Constructing Cultures: Essays on Literary Translation

Susan Bassnett and André Lefevere

Contemporary Translation Theories (2nd Edition)

Edwin Gentzler

Culture Bumps: An Empirical Approach to the Translation of Allusions

Ritva Leppihalme

Practical Guide for Translators

Geoffrey Samuelsson-Brown

The Coming Industry of Teletranslation

Minako O’Hagan

The Interpreter’s Resource

Mary Phelan

The Pragmatics of Translation

Leo Hickey (ed.)

The Rewriting of Njáls Saga: Translation, Ideology, and Icelandic Sagas

Jon Karl Helgason

Translation, Power, Subversion

Román Alvarez and M. Carmen-Africa Vidal (eds)

Translation and Nation: A Cultural Politics of Englishness

Roger Ellis and Liz Oakley-Brown (eds)

Time Sharing on Stage: Drama Translation in Theatre and Society

Sirkku Aaltonen

Words, Words, Words. The Translator and the Language Learner

Gunilla Anderman and Margaret Rogers

Written in the Language of the Scottish Nation

John Corbett

Please contact us for the latest book information:

Multilingual Matters, Frankfurt Lodge, Clevedon Hall,

Victoria Road, Clevedon, BS21 7HH, England



Editor: Geoffrey Samuelsson-Brown, University of Surrey

Literary Translation

A Practical Guide

Clifford E. Landers

New Jersey City University


Clevedon • Buffalo • Toronto • Sydney

To my wife Vasda Bonafini Landers,

who translated me into a translator

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Landers, Clifford, E.

Literary Translation: A Practical Guide/Clifford E. Landers.

Topics in Translation: 22.

Includes many examples, chiefly in Portuguese.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

1. Translating and interpreting. 2. Literature–History and criticism–Theory, etc.

I. Title. II. Series.

PN241.L29 2001

418’.02–dc21     2001041009

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue entry for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN 978-1-84769-560-4

Multilingual Matters Ltd

UK: Frankfurt Lodge, Clevedon Hall, Victoria Road, Clevedon BS21 7HH.

USA: UTP, 2250 Military Road, Tonawanda, NY 14150, USA.

Canada: UTP, 5201 Dufferin Street, North York, Ontario M3H 5T8, Canada.

Australia: Footprint Books, Unit 4/92a Mona Vale Road, Mona Vale, NSW 2103, Australia.

Copyright © 2001 Clifford E. Landers.

Some of the material in this book has appeared in modified form in ATA Chronicle, ATA Source, Brasil/Brazil, Discurso, Literary Review, Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the American Translators Association, Platte Valley Review, Prime Crimes and Translation Review.

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the publisher.

Printed and bound in Great Britain by the Cromwell Press Ltd.


La Dernière Translation, by Millôr Fernandes


The Fundamentals

Why Literary Translation?

Night Drive, by Rubem Fonseca

The uniqueness of literary translation

An ephemeral art

Getting started

How many languages?

Submissions: a primer

Coping with bad reviews

Preparing to translate

Down to work


Staying on track

A day in the life of a literary translator

Stages of translation

Techniques of Translation

Decisions at the outset

Fluency and transparency

The author–translator–reader triangle

‘Targeteers’ and ‘sourcerers’


Word by word or thought by thought?

Adaptation or translation?

Register and tone

Using tone in translation

What literary translators really translate

When not to translate cultural cues

The care and feeding of authors

The dubious project

Face time with the author

The hijacked author

Style in translation

Fiction and footnotes




Some notes on translating poetry

To rhyme or not to rhyme?

Translating humorous verse

Other areas of literary translation

Translating non-fiction

Translating for the theater

Translating children’s literature

Puns and word play

Stalking the treacherous typo (Lapsus calami)

The dilemma of dialect

Special problems in literary translation

English before there was English

English with a restricted vocabulary: a case study

Working with subtext

Indirect translation

Pitfalls and how to avoid them

Errors of frequency

‘Landmine’ words: hidden traps in translating common vocabulary

Change of address: problems of the English vocative

The all-important title

Title quest: a case study

Profanity, prurience, pornography

Pornography or ‘pornography’?

The crucial role of revision

How many drafts?

Final steps


Grammar checkers

Verifying against the source language

Where to publish


Commercial presses

Small presses

Academic presses

A word on self-publishing

The Working Translator

The translator’s tools


How to use dictionaries for translation

Electronic vs. printed dictionaries

Dictionaries on the Internet

Workspace and work time

Financial matters


Setting a price

Other translation-related sources of income


What to include

The © question

When contracts aren’t honored

A final word on literary translation



Appendix: Ethical questions in literary translation

La Dernière Translation

by Millôr Fernandes

When an old translator dies

Does his soul, alma, anima,

Free now of its wearisome craft

Of rendering

Go straight to heaven, ao céu,

al cielo, au ciel, zum Himmel,

Or to the hell – Hölle – of the great


Or will a translator be considered

In the minute hierarchy of the divine


Neither fish, nor water, ni poisson ni l’eau

Nem água, nem peixe, nichts, assolutamente


What of the essential will this

mere intermediary of semantics, broker

of the universal Babel, discover?

Definitive communication, without words?

Once again the first word?

Will he learn, finally!,

Whether HE speaks Hebrew

Or Latin?

Or will he remain infinitely

In the infinite

Until he hears the Voice, Voz, Voix, Voce,

Stimme, Vox,

Of the Supreme Mystery

Coming from beyond

Flying like a birdpássarouccelopájarovogel

Addressing him in...

And giving at last

The translation of Amen?

– translated from Brazilian Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers


As the title states, this is a practical, not a theoretical, guide. While I have no quarrel with theorists, in theory at least, this is a get-your-hands-dirty, wrestle-with-reality type of book. Literary Translation: A Practical Guide is based on the following assumptions.

(1) The direction of translation is from a given source language (SL) into English, the target language (TL). This does not necessarily assume that the translator is a native speaker of English. Though there are powerful arguments that one should always translate into one’s mother tongue, there are enough counterexamples, both of authors (Conrad and Nabokov come to mind) and of translators to convince a fair-minded observer that this rule is not inviolable.

(2) The goal of literary translation is publication. Translating for pleasure or as intellectual exercise is well and good, but the dedicated literary translator aims at sharing the final result with TL readers for whom the work would otherwise forever remain inaccessible. A portion of this guide is devoted to the question of how to go about finding an outlet for one’s translations.

(3) The translator possesses a working knowledge of a language pair – fluent English and a solid grounding in the SL. Convincing arguments can be made that thoroughgoing command of the TL is by far the more important of the two, and there are instances of translators producing excellent renderings of works, especially in the case of poetry, whose original language is complete terra incognita to them. An instance of the TL’s paramount role in literary translation: when Gregory Rabassa was about to begin his exemplary translation of Gabriel García Márquez’s monumental Cien años de soledad, he was asked if he thought his Spanish was good enough. ‘What I wonder,’ replied Rabassa, who was born and raised in the United States, ‘is whether my English is good enough.’

In Literary Translation: A Practical Guide, both beginning and experienced translators will find pragmatic techniques for dealing with problems of literary translation, whatever the original language. The specifics of translating, say, Bulgarian, obviously differ from those of rendering French, Chinese, or any other language into English. But certain challenges and certain themes recur in translation, whatever the language pair. This guide proposes to help the translator navigate through them.

Because a book about translation without examples is like a book about photography without pictures, illustrations, mostly from my language of specialty – Portuguese – appear frequently. They are meant not as models but as stimuli to thinking. The same kinds of associations and thought processes that ‘solve’ problems in one language are usually transferable to another tongue.

The quotation marks around solve are a reminder that translation problems are not like math problems that have only one or at most a strictly limited number of right answers. As a subfield of literature – and literature is indisputably an art rather than a science – translation is subjective in essence. Reasonable people may well disagree about which of several proposed alternatives to a particular translation problem best addresses it. Nevertheless, there are guidelines that can help us work our way through, to use a Borgesian metaphor, the seemingly infinite labyrinth of forking paths. That is the purpose of this book.

The Fundamentals

Why Literary Translation?

Why do literary translation? Consider:


by Rubem Fonseca

I arrived home with my briefcase bulging with papers, reports, studies, research, proposals, contracts. My wife, who was playing solitaire in bed, a glass of whiskey on the nightstand, said, without looking up from the cards, ‘You look tired.’ The usual house sounds: my daughter in her room practicing voice modulation, quadraphonic music from my son’s room. ‘Why don’t you put down that suitcase?’ my wife asked. ‘Take off those clothes, have a nice glass of whiskey. You’ve got to learn to relax.’

I went to the library, the place in the house I enjoy being by myself, and as usual did nothing. I opened the research volume on the desk but didn’t see the letters and numbers. I was merely waiting.

‘You never stop working. I’ll bet your partners don’t work half as hard and they earn the same.’ My wife came into the room, a glass in her hand. ‘Can I tell her to serve dinner?’

The maid served the meal French style. My children had grown up, my wife and I were fat. ‘It’s that wine you like,’ she said, clicking her tongue with pleasure. My son asked for money during the coffee course, my daughter asked for money during the liqueur. My wife didn’t ask for anything; we have a joint checking account.

‘Shall we go for a drive?’ I asked her. I knew she wouldn’t go – it was time for her soap opera.

‘I don’t see what you get out of going for a drive every night, but the car cost a fortune, it has to be used. I’m just less and less attracted to material things,’ she replied.

The children’s cars were blocking the garage door, preventing me from removing my car. I moved both cars and parked them in the street, removed my car and parked it in the street, put the other two cars back in the garage, and closed the door. All this maneuvering left me slightly irritated, but when I saw my car’s jutting bumpers, the special chrome-plated double reinforcement, I felt my heart race with euphoria.

I turned the ignition key. It was a powerful motor that generated its strength silently beneath the aerodynamic hood. As always, I left without knowing where I would go. It had to be a deserted street, in this city with more people than flies. Not the Avenida Brasil – too busy.

I came to a poorly lighted street, heavy with dark trees, the perfect spot. A man or a woman? It made little difference, really, but no one with the right characteristics appeared. I began to get tense. It always happened that way, and I even liked it – the sense of relief was greater. Then I saw the woman. It could be her, even though a woman was less exciting because she was easier. She was walking quickly, carrying a package wrapped in cheap paper – something from a bakery or the market. She was wearing a skirt and blouse.

There were trees every twenty yards along the sidewalk, an interesting problem demanding a great deal of expertise. I turned off the headlights and accelerated. She only realized I was going for her when she heard the sound of the tires hitting the curb. I caught her above the knees, right in the middle of her legs, a bit more toward the left leg – a perfect hit. I heard the impact break the large bones, veered rapidly to the left, shot narrowly past one of the trees, and, tires squealing, skidded back onto the asphalt. The motor would go from zero to sixty in eight seconds. I could see that the woman’s broken body had come to rest, covered with blood, on top of the low wall in front of a house.

Back in the garage, I took a good look at the car. With pride I ran my hand lightly over the unmarked fenders and bumper. Few people in the world could match my skill driving such a car.

The family was watching television. ‘Do you feel better after your spin?’ my wife asked, lying on the sofa, staring fixedly at the TV screen.

‘I’m going to bed,’ I answered, ‘good night everybody. Tomorrow’s going to be a rough day at the office.’

* * *

The pleasure of reading such a seemingly simple, brief, yet fully realized short story is something most of us would want to share with others. But if it is written in another language, access is limited to only those who read that tongue.

Its theme, the banality of evil, is delineated concisely and tellingly; no words are wasted – every detail adds to the totality of a setting and a life hurriedly glimpsed yet understood as much as any of us can understand the Other. It is a deceptively uncomplicated work that stays with and haunts us long after the few moments it takes to read. It, and the myriad of other fine pieces of literature appearing in hundreds of the world’s languages, are the best argument for doing literary translation.

Why do literary translation? Of all the forms that translation takes – such as commercial, financial, technical, scientific, advertising, etc. – only literary translation lets one consistently share in the creative process. Here alone does the translator experience the aesthetic joys of working with great literature, of recreating in a new language a work that would otherwise remain beyond reach, effectively ‘in code,’ in the metaphor of the celebrated Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom.

By itself, is this enough to motivate a would-be translator? For the majority of those who do literary translation, the answer is yes. For others, the incentives may be more tangible. To begin with, literary translation eschews the anonymity of other areas of translation; uncredited book-length translations belong to an earlier, less enlightened time. Although glory is unlikely to attach to a translator’s name, for better or worse he or she is now recognized as part of the literary world.

The intellectual rewards of translation (which, hereafter will mean literary translation unless otherwise specified) are many. For some, the pleasure of puzzle-solving is an important element. How to find an equivalent for a source-language pun? Can the tone of the original be reproduced in the target language? What to do about slang, nicknames, colloquialisms, proverbs, references to popular culture, metalanguage (when a language becomes self-referential, as for example an allusion to vs. usted in Spanish)? The delight, mental though it be, that a translator feels in cutting through any of these Gordian knots can best be described as somewhere between chocolate and sex – you choose their rank-order.

The literary translator can take heart from having expanded the potential readership of a novel from, say, the five million who read Finnish to the half a billion who read English as a first or second language. By rendering ‘Passeio Noturno’ into ‘Night Drive,’ the translator increased over fourfold the potential audience for the work, in the process making it accessible to students and researchers of comparative literature who may not read Portuguese. Finally, the new version may serve as source for translation into third languages (see ‘Indirect Translation’).

Some translate for the prestige. Seeing one’s name on a title page just below that of a Nobel laureate is, well, heady, even if the author is long departed or, if living, far too busy to engage in dialogue with a translator. This is not to imply that major writers look down upon their translators, merely a reminder that English is not the only language into which outstanding literary works are translated.

Still others value translation for the relationships that can develop from it. The very first author I translated, Rubem Fonseca, whose story ‘Night Drive’ introduced this section, became a close friend, and that friendship has endured some 15 years. In many countries, writers are a small coterie, all of whom know one another. A successful translation of one writer’s works may often lead to referrals to other literati in the same circle, something that has happened with me consistently in the last decade. English is a prestige language, especially in developing countries, and writers are very cognizant of the role that translation into English plays in making their works known beyond their own linguistic boundaries.

As superficial as it may seem, some translators report that their activities give them access to a world they would never penetrate in their home countries. An ordinary citizen who would scarcely hope to have tea with literary luminaries of his own nation – John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, or Norman Mailer – can interact socially and professionally with their equivalents in Denmark, Brazil, Egypt, or Romania. For often underappreciated word-workers like translators, this is a not inconsequential perk.

There are many reasons for doing literary translation, but ultimately only you can decide which ones impel you. As for money, it has been omitted from these deliberations because if it’s your primary motivation for doing literary translation, you should choose another field. Much greater monetary compensation can be had in any of the other areas of translation; many people make a respectable living doing nothing but commercial or technical translation. While it’s a cliché that literary translation is a labor of love, basically it is. Of the scores of literary translators I know, not one is motivated to exercise the craft primarily by bottom-line considerations. (At this writing, even the most prolific of living translators of Spanish- and Portuguese-language literature, Gregory Rabassa, whose output spans more then three decades, has not given up his university day job.) This is not to suggest that literary translation is philanthropic or totally uncompensated volunteer work, just that it should not be counted upon as one’s main source of income. Financial aspects of the craft are discussed in a later chapter.

So, why do literary translation? For me, at least, to have the pleasure of introducing English-speaking readers to outstanding works like ‘Night Drive.’

The uniqueness of literary translation

Literary translation, at least in the English-speaking world, faces a difficulty that texts originally written in English do not: resistance by the public to reading literature in translation. There is no need to belabor this point, so evident to publishers in England, the United States, and the other Anglo-Saxon nations. As Jorge Iglesias has said, ‘To know we are reading a translation implies a loss of innocence.’ This imposes a significant burden on the translator to overcome, and to do so means having a firm grasp on principles and techniques.

The anecdote in the Preface about Gregory Rabassa’s feelings before he began translating One Hundred Years of Solitude illustrates one of the unique qualities that set literary translation apart from all other branches of translation. In addition to a thorough mastery of the source language, the literary translator must possess a profound knowledge of the target language. In reality, being in love with one or both languages, if not an absolute necessity, is a trait frequently found among the best and most successful literary translators. A lifelong love affair with words is one of the qualities that sets logophiles apart from others – e.g., journalists, publicists, copywriters – who may make their living dealing with the written or spoken word but whose attachment is often more utilitarian than the translator’s.

One of the most difficult concepts about literary translation to convey to those who have never seriously attempted it – including practitioners in areas such as technical and commercial translation – is that how one says something can be as important, sometimes more important, than what one says.

In technical translation, for example, style is not a consideration so long as the informational content makes its way unaltered from SL to TL. The freight-train analogy is a useful one: in technical translation the order of the cars is inconsequential if all the cargo arrives intact. In literary translation, however, the order of the cars – which is to say the style – can make the difference between a lively, highly readable translation and a stilted, rigid, and artificial rendering that strips the original of its artistic and aesthetic essence, even its very soul.

Now that we have established that literary translation is the most demanding type of translation, a short digression. Why, I am often asked, does it pay less than the other branches? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Let’s not mince words. In some cases, rather than pay poorly, literary translation pays not at all. (Unlike novels, most of the short stories I’ve translated yielded not a cent.) And yet there is no shortage of aspiring translators ready to take the plunge. Literary translators are usually delighted to see their work in print, and for many this is reward enough. No exception to the law of supply and demand, literary translation is underpaid because so many are willing to do it for sheer pleasure. For comparison, think of the vast numbers of people who paint and how few earn a living at it. Yet neither painters nor literary translators are deterred from the pursuit of their art. Many literary translators are academicians, with the language background, necessary free time, and income to devote themselves to the activity. (There’s no income in bird-watching either, but the pastime continues to grow.) There are far more people willing, even eager, to do literary translation than there are individuals who will pay them to do so, and outside the publishing world there is virtually no demand for literary translation. The result? As has been said before, if you’re in literary translation for the money, you picked the wrong field. End of digression.

Consider some of the capabilities that the literary translator must command: tone, style, flexibility, inventiveness, knowledge of the SL culture, the ability to glean meaning from ambiguity, an ear for sonority, and humility. Why humility? Because even our best efforts will never succeed in capturing in all its grandeur the richness of the original. The description of translation attributed to Cervantes will always haunt us: a tapestry seen from the wrong side. If we produce a translation that approximates the TL text or stands as a literary work in its own right, that is the most that can be expected.

A simple SL phrase like Portuguese Não vou lá can be rendered in a variety of ways in English, from the highest grammatical register exemplifying ‘refined’ speech to the solecisms usually associated in the public mind with incomplete education and lower social status. Restricting ourselves only to subject–verb–complement order (there are other, less common possibilities: I go there not, there go I not, there I do not go, etc.), each variant slightly alters the effect:

I do not go there.

I don’t go there.

I am not going there.

I’m not going there.

I shall not go there.

I shan’t go there.

I will not go there.

I won’t go there.

I am not going to go there.

I’m not going to go there.

I ain’t going there.

I ain’t goin’ there.

The choice from among this wide range of TL choices, any of which can conceivably be the most appropriate rendering of the SL phrase, hinges on a

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